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October 29, 2010

Here's one housing-related bill that's heading down

If you're a BGE customer, you can expect your electric bill will fall next year.

Average residential bills will be $192 less during the June through May period than in the current 12-month stretch, according to the utility's projections. That's $16 less a month -- and $28 per month below the peak of two years ago. But the tab is still well above where things stood during the six-year freeze on rates that lifted in 2006 to much Sturm und Drang.

Usually, rates go up during the summer and fall during the off-season. But the drop in energy prices is significant enough that next summer's rates will be ever-so-slightly lower than they are now, with a bigger decrease to come next fall. Grand total: an 11 percent drop compared with June 2010 through May 2011.

How's your bill these days? Are you seeing any other housing expenses falling? (Folks due for a reassessment should end up with a lower property-tax bill in July, at least.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Utility bills
        

October 28, 2010

The foreclosure effect on home prices

It's pretty much a given that foreclosures are a drag on home prices. But how much, exactly?

A study by researchers at Harvard and MIT, which analyzed years of sales data in Massachusetts, estimated that foreclosed homes sell for an average of 27 percent less than non-foreclosure comps. They lower the value of homes around them to boot. A non-foreclosed home takes a 1 percent hit in price for each foreclosure within about 250 feet, the study suggests -- meaning the effect worsens as the number of nearby foreclosures mount.

Daniel Hartley, a research economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, references this study in a new paper that notes the trouble that foreclosures -- often ill-maintained, sometimes magnets for crime -- can cause in neighborhoods. "Disamenities," he calls them. On top of that, they're an addition to the supply of homes for sale at a time when there's a shortage of buyers.

His research suggests the price effect on neighborhoods differs, though:

In neighborhoods with low vacancy rates (tight markets), foreclosures lower the prices of nearby single-family houses by way of the supply effect. I estimate that housing prices within 250 feet of a foreclosure are lowered by about 1.6 percent per foreclosure through the supply effect, while the disamenity effect is about zero. In contrast, in neighborhoods with high vacancy rates (“looser” markets), foreclosures lower prices of nearby single-family houses by way of the disamenity effect. I estimate that housing prices within 250 feet of a foreclosure are lowered by about 2 percent per foreclosure through the disamenity effect, while the supply effect is about zero.

Hartley's recommendation is to make decisions about whether and when to foreclose based in part on which type of neighborhood the homes are in:

In low-vacancy-rate neighborhoods, where foreclosures affect nearby property values through the supply effect, the best strategy may be to meter out the foreclosed properties at a rate slow enough to avoid flooding the market. In contrast, in high-vacancy-rate neighborhoods, where foreclosures affect nearby property values through the disamenity effect, the most important issue is making sure that properties are kept up and do not sit vacant. This suggests that it is important to make sure that owners have an equity stake in their homes, which can be achieved through principal write-downs or by a quick foreclosure process and sale of the property at the current market price to a buyer who will live in the home.

Thoughts?

Foreclosures are no small part of the market these days, that's for certain.

Properties foreclosed on by lenders made up a third of home sales in the city from January through September, according to a Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors analysis of Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data.

Bank-owned properties were 21 percent of sales in Harford, 18 percent in Baltimore County, 16 percent in Anne Arundel, 14 percent in Carroll and 11 percent in Howard. (Foreclosures made up nearly half of sales in Prince George's County, by comparison.)

Across the board, the percentages were lower last year. Foreclosures doubled their share of the market in Harford compared with 2009, for instance.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: The foreclosure mess
        

October 27, 2010

A smaller rent increase for a wider swath of Baltimore apartments

One firm that tracks apartments found a nearly 10 percent increase in rents among the snazziest complexes in the Baltimore metro area this summer, compared with a year ago. But that's probably not the case for folks in rank-and-file units.

RentJungle.com, a housing search engine that tracks ads for rentals of all types, says it found that average rents this summer were up less than 3 percent from a year ago. The site looked within a 10-mile radius of downtown Baltimore, compiling ads on sites ranging from Apartments.com to craigslist.

Jon Pastor, CEO of RentJungle, wasn't surprised that a Delta Associates report on "Class A" (read: upscale) apartment buildings showed a much bigger increase. "We look at all buildings," he said.

His site is also looking at a different geography. The nearly 10 percent increase reported by Delta Associates is for the entire metro area. (That firm did offer a few city-specific figures: a 3.4 percent increase in downtown Baltimore and a nearly 16 percent jump in the Fells Point/Inner Harbor area.)

RentJungle, looking within 10 miles of downtown, found apartment ads asking for an average monthly rent of $1,123 during the July to September period. That's up 2.7 percent from a year earlier. (It's actually down slightly from the spring, by $9 a month.)

As you might expect, $1,123 is significantly lower than what Delta Associates found Class A complexes were charging. The monthly rent for those higher-end places averaged $1,470, Delta Associates said.

So where are the priciest and cheapest neighborhoods for rentals? According to RentJungle, Federal Hill's at one extreme, with an average monthly rent of about $1,800. Fells Point, the Inner Harbor and Canton are all over $1,500. At the low end: Upper Northwood, Cedonia and Chinquapin Park-Belvedere, all between $800 and $900. (Charles Village is also under $1,000, RentJungle says.)

When I reported the 10 percent increase figure, some readers noted that the experience of the high end of the rental market doesn't necessarily hold true across the board. So it's good to see figures that try to encompass a larger spectrum of rentals.

Wonk reader Cathy suggested in a comment that asking prices for rentals (much like homes for sale) are not the full story. Though rents in Baltimore might be higher, she wrote, "the number of vacant rentals has increased. And until rents come down, those rentals will never be filled."

David found that rent increases aren't always set in stone: "I saw a 5% increase in my rent when I was sent my renewal in June. I told my landlord that I planned to move out. In September, just a few weeks before I moved, the rental office emailed me and said that they had some 'flexibility' and would I contact them. I would encourage renters to not renew unless they do a little negotiating."

But Shireen, who detailed her negotiating success story here last year, said it was a no-go for her this time: "My apartment complex, which was undergoing a transition (renovations) has been filling up over the year, mostly with Towson U. students. They've become less interested in negotiating with good long-term tenants. As a result, my rent has increased by $125/month. That's painful."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Renting
        

October 26, 2010

Home-price decline ranks Md. 19th

Maryland's drop in home prices was 19th highest nationwide in August, a new CoreLogic report suggests.

The real estate information firm says the state's year-over-year drop was 2.9 percent, including the effect of distress sales such as foreclosures. (Without those sales, prices were essentially unchanged from Aug. 2009, the company said.)

Biggest slider -- Idaho, down 14 percent.

Eleven states, though, posted price increases, according to CoreLogic's calculations. Topping the list was Maine, up 5.8 percent. That's with distress sales. Without them, the state's home prices actually dropped, CoreLogic says, down nearly 1 percent. (It doesn't wade into the possible reasons for that brain-teaser.)

Bottom line, from CoreLogic's perspective, is that price decreases are bleeding into more communities:

"Price declines are geographically expanding as 78 out of the largest 100 metropolitan areas are experiencing declines, up from 58 just one month ago," Mark Fleming, its chief economist, said in a statement.

The Baltimore metro area is on the list: Prices dropped 4.5 percent. (Counting only the non-distress sales, price fell about 2.6 percent.)

CoreLogic crunches its stats using repeat sales of single-family homes, an attempt to avoid comparing apples (i.e. four-bedroom Colonials) to oranges (i.e. one-bedroom ranchers).

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Housing stats
        

October 25, 2010

A demand to banks to provide proof of mortgage ownership

A union, tapping into discontent and anxiety about financial institutions' record-keeping on mortgage matters, has launched a webpage helping borrowers "demand to see the original note" that shows who owns their loan.

In two weeks, about 100,000 people have made requests through the site, according to the Service Employees International Union.

The site, wheresthenote.com, sums up the situation this way:

"Mortgages contain lots of paperwork – but only the original mortgage note with your signature is proof that you owe the debt. That’s why banks need the note to prove that they own the loan and can collect payments from you. The problem is, banks now buy and sell mortgages up and down Wall Street – slicing them up and repackaging them to sell to other banks. The bank you bought your mortgage from two years ago may not be the bank that owns it today. But, in all the shuffle, the mortgage notes often don’t get transferred along with your debt."

Stephen Lerner, director of SEIU's bank and finance campaign, says homeowners across the country "are wondering who owns their mortgage, can the bank prove they own the mortgage, are there original notes or not?" Financial institutions' responses to borrowers' requests have begun coming in, and they vary from "here's the documentation" to "we have to research this," he said.

"Legally, they have to respond," he added.

SEIU isn't a disinterested bystander. It's trying to unionize big banks, and it has been highly critical of the industry in the wake of the financial crisis.

Lerner said the "Where's The Note?" campaign has a larger point beyond connecting borrowers with information about their mortgages.

"Banks need to start massively modifying mortgages, and that's the way to stabilize the economy," he said. "There is, all over the country, sort of a growing movement of homeowners, not just people being foreclosed on but people who are underwater, people whose communities are in desperate economic shape, who are joining together and saying, 'The banks got us in this mess and now they have to help fix it.'"

Some might be interested in seeing the documentation on their mortgages without favoring massive modifications, and vice versa. So I'm curious to hear what you think of the "show me the mortgage note" campaign and its larger goal.

As people argue over foreclosure procedures and what's best for the economy, Bloomberg Businessweek is offering up an interesting -- and distressing -- piece of commentary about how clear proof of ownership is a bedrock part of what makes Western capitalism work. "That's why the burgeoning foreclosure mess in the U.S. strikes at the nation's economic heart," writes economics editor Peter Coy.

He's suggesting, in essence, that sorting this out properly is of critical importance for all Americans, or at least those who think capitalism is a good idea. Do you agree?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: The foreclosure mess
        

October 22, 2010

Property-tax phone scam

The taxman may cometh, but he does not call. Scammers are hoping some Baltimore County residents don't know that.

The county police department is hearing from senior citizens that they're getting calls claiming their property taxes are overdue and demanding the money immediately. "In at least one case the senior citizen was asked for banking information (account and routing numbers)," the police said in a statement.

It should be needless to say, but just for the record: Don't give that information out to anyone calling you out of the blue, let alone supposed property-tax collectors.

Turn the tables on them -- ask for the caller's name and a callback number. "Remember, the phone number could be linked to a fraudulent location," the police say.

I've heard of scammers calling people about supposedly missed jury duty, but this is a new one on me.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Property taxes
        

October 21, 2010

Asking-price decreases on local homes: $100k in 4 years

The typical asking price for a home in the Baltimore metro area is just under $232,000 these days, according to HousingTracker.net.

Four years ago? Just over $335,000.

Among pricier homes, the drop comes to $136,000 over the same stretch of years, to about $363,000. The price drop on less-expensive homes is $86,000, to just under $150,000.

Homes on the market now aren't necessarily close stand-ins for the ones offered to buyers four years ago, so there's always a question of apples vs. oranges -- but however you cut it, it's a notable change.

On a related note: The newest report from real estate site Trulia shows 35 percent of homes for sale in Baltimore City have had at least one asking-price reduction. That's up slightly from September. Average reduction: 12 percent.

It's not that no one's selling, of course. But all the recent talk about where things stand for homeowners in the mood to move has depressed Wonk reader Gina:

"I feel like I would have an easier time finding a buyer for a piece of heavy exercise equipment in my basement than this house," she wrote in a comment.

Mark, meanwhile, is looking to buy in the $500,000-plus range and says his experience is that asking prices still aren't appropriate.

"If I'm going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a home, I will want it to be essentially move-in ready, updated and accurate for comps not just today but tomorrow as well," he wrote in a comment. "Looking for six months, I've seen one house sell. I've looked at over 80 homes - all with some 'problem' - either a bad kitchen, bad bathrooms, highway, bad floors, etc. which would require an additional influx of tens of thousands of dollars. Homes should be 'perfect' not projects, unless they are priced as projects."

Pinkie, who's looked in the $180,000 to $250,000 range, was similarly unimpressed by the offerings there.

"I decided to re-devote myself to my current home, stick it out longer, wait for the market to improve, and do some key projects in the meantime -- the heating, windows, floors, and indoor/outdoor paint," Pinkie wrote. "We won't get a dollar-for-dollar return on the investments but these are all components we need to stay in the home for any period and will help move the house once we're ready to sell. Fingers crossed!"
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Housing stats
        

October 20, 2010

Md. judges OK foreclosure audits

Maryland's highest court has given administrative judges across the state the green light to hire examiners to help scrutinize documents in potentially thousands of foreclosure cases

The Court of Appeals voted 6 to 0 in favor of the emergency proposal. (The seventh judge was feeling poorly and was not at the meeting.)

The committee that proposes rules to the court had recommended the move on Friday.

Some courts have already begun reviewing foreclosure cases -- particularly ones with "corrective affidavits" filed by two Maryland attorneys, in which they acknowledge that they had others reproduce their signatures for them on earlier affidavits. These documents, the written equivalent of court testimony, can't be signed on another's behalf.

Judges in Howard and Prince George's counties, where reviews are underway, said any help they can get to examine cases is appreciated. (The rules approved by the Court of Appeals Tuesday permit courts to pass the costs of examiners onto firms trying to foreclose, who cannot in turn pass the costs onto homeowners unless the documents in need of review were filed by the borrowers.)

Reader comments on the foreclosure drama have continued to run the gamut. Nehemiah wrote that borrowers who got behind on their payments "did NOT break the law. They may have made bad decisions but they did NOT break the law. These lenders & lawyers KNEW the law - KNEW the consequences and DID IT ANYWAY… They should be made an example of by our AG."

Reader elweedz says it's a molehill masquerading as a mountain: "Get a grip people. 99.9% of the foreclosures were legitimate because the homeowner wasnt paying their mortgage. Who gives a flip who signed some standard paperwork. For those that had a real error, it will get fixed."

And reader Josh Dowlut sees two sides to the story: "On the one hand, this has become hand to hand class warfare with the banks. It is reasonable to make them 'work for it' if they are going to try and take your home. On the other hand, this is only delaying the inevitable. These are procedural errors that will not result in any homeowner getting their mortgage or note voided."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:01 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: The foreclosure mess
        

October 19, 2010

Changing balance of power between home buyers and sellers

MonthsSupplySept.gif

 

Want a visual for the balance of power in the Baltimore metro area housing market? This is pretty much it.

The months of supply -- how long it would take to sell all homes on the market at the current pace  -- dropped to hardly anything during the housing boom/bubble  and zoomed upward after that. (The 2009 dip came as buyers reacted to the federal tax credit for first-time purchasers.)

Low supply equals power to the sellers -- you can really see why buyers found homes purchased out from under them if they didn't bid immediately back in the 2003-2005 days. High supply? That's a buyer's market, with sellers pressed to lower prices and cover closing costs. Economists normally say the point at which supply and demand balance out is around six months.

The chart above, which I put together using Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data, looks at the changing balance of power in the month of September from 1999 onward. It's a simple calculation -- number of homes listed for sale divided by the number of sales in that month. (Some suggest dividing listings by the average number of sales for the past 12 months, to smooth out seasonal gyrations, but since we're comparing September to past Septembers, I figured the newest numbers would be best.)

So, those of you (actively or nominally) in the market for a home: Do you feel as if you've got more power now than you did a year ago? Or are other market forces blowing you off course?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (22)
Categories: Housing stats
        

October 18, 2010

Less housing 'stress' in Baltimore area, comparatively speaking

Baltimore is less stressed, from a housing perspective, than most metro areas -- or at least that's what a Wall Street Journal analysis suggests. For a truly relaxed region, though, you'll need to move to North Dakota.

The newspaper's Real Time Economics blog put together a stress test that adds three stats for each metro area: the percentage of borrowers spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the share of residents without health insurance and the percentage of people without a job (including retirees and others not working by choice).

By that measure, housing stress in the Baltimore metro area -- the city plus the suburbs -- comes to 76.3. People paying a lot of their income on mortgages were nearly 37 percent of all borrowers last year, 10 percent of residents didn't have health insurance and just over 29 percent weren't working.

That's 16th least-stressed among the 49 largest metro areas, the WSJ says. (Not sure why they featured 49 and not 50 ...) Calculating it for 535 metro areas, which is most of the country, suggests the Baltimore metro area is less stressed than almost 70 percent of the nation.

The country's housing-stress figure is 85.7.

Least stressed: Bismarck, N.D., at 47 -- thanks to low numbers across the board, but particularly on the share of people paying too much for housing (18 percent). Many of the regions on the good end of the ranking are in the Midwest. (Least stressed among large metros: Buffalo, N.Y., at just under 67.)

What stats would you use if you were designing your own housing stress test?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Housing stats
        

October 16, 2010

Md.'s high court will weigh idea of foreclosure 'examiners'

Maryland's highest court will consider a proposal next week that could mean "massive audits" of documents filed by firms trying to foreclose on homeowners.

The committee that proposes rules for the courts, concerned about admissions that people are submitting what its chairman calls "bogus" affidavits, thinks there ought to be examiners looking closely at potentially thousands of case files.

Affidavits are key legal documents, and they're serious business. When you sign them, you're attesting under oath that you have personal knowledge of the facts therein. And you have to sign them yourself.

Unless you've been under a rock the last few weeks, or perhaps put your hands over your ears and cried "la la la" whenever you heard "foreclosure," you're probably already aware that loan-servicer employees have said they're signing so many foreclosure affidavits that they don't have personal knowledge of those therein facts. And two Maryland foreclosure attorneys acknowledged in court documents that their signatures on some affidavits were not in fact made by them.

Court rules committee chairman Alan M. Wilner said in a letter that an examination of affidavits could be required in thousands of files. (In a memo earlier this week, he said judges are "alarmed" by the potential scope of the problem.)

I realize that some of you are exasperated by the slowdown in foreclosures that these revelations have caused. "Who cares how lenders are foreclosing?" some readers have said. "The borrowers didn't pay -- what else matters?"

Homeowner advocates argue that some borrowers did pay or they paid more than they're getting credit for, etc., but let's set that aside for the moment to let Wilner, a retired judge, bring up a larger point:

"In the Committee’s view, the use of bogus affidavits to support actions to foreclose liens on property, apart from prejudice to the homeowners, constitutes an assault on the integrity of the judicial process itself," he wrote in a letter to the Court of Appeals, which will take up the rules proposal next Tuesday.

It's not just about foreclosures. Until now, Wilner notes, "courts, with good reason and really of necessity, have relied on the accuracy of affidavits, especially when filed by attorneys, unless there is something on the face of the document to suggest otherwise or the validity of the affidavit is challenged."

"Evidence that has recently come to light, largely through admissions under oath by the affiants themselves, has shaken the confidence that the courts have traditionally given to those kinds of affidavits," Wilner wrote.

Consumer attorneys have long complained about problematic affidavits filed in credit-card collection cases and similar consumer debt issues. The courts are overwhelmed with these cases, just as they're now overwhelmed with foreclosure suits, so close scrutiny just hasn't been in the cards. But now the rules committee's recommendation could lead to a change in the foreclosures arena. 

Scrutiny won't come for free, the committee warns. Its suggestion: charge the plaintiff -- unless the affidavits under review were filed by the homeowner, the defendant in a foreclosure action. The proposal the committee is sending to the Court of Appeals would not allow those charges to be passed on to borrowers as an item on their tab.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (15)
Categories: The foreclosure mess
        

October 15, 2010

Who's signing the foreclosure documents?

The "robo-signers" we all keep hearing about were so dubbed because they signed thousands of foreclosure documents a month for mortgage servicers -- too many to personally verify the information included, as affidavits require.

Here's something different: Attorneys at two Maryland law firms handling foreclosures have acknowledged in court filings that they didn't actually sign their own affidavits, also a requirement. Others signed the attorneys' names for them.

Here's the original story, which ran Wednesday, and a follow-up.

So that's why I've neglected you all the past couple days. Sorry! Been a bit busy.

The reader reaction runs the gamut.

"Big deal. So one faceless employee signed for another faceless employee.  The fact remains that the homeowner defaulted.  Let's move this along and clear up this mess quickly," one reader wrote in the story comments.

Another commented that "failing to do due diligence is what got everyone into this mess. So yet again, no lessons learned by the banks or mortgage companies. I heard someone say this morning (and I agree) that since we bothered to bail out some of these institutions, the absolute least they could do in return is ensure they're *doing their work*."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: The foreclosure mess
        

October 12, 2010

Anti-mortgage-scam campaign launches

 

The Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition is launching a campaign to warn struggling borrowers that some of the people promising to help them avoid foreclosure will only hasten it.

The nonprofit, which will be joined by elected officials at an event today, doesn't want homeowners to be scammed. It's telling residents not to pay foreclosure-prevention firms upfront fees -- it's illegal to charge them in Maryland -- and to be suspicious of any company guaranteeing results. (Worse than simply paying fees upfront? Listening to firms who recommend you stop making mortgage payments in order to pay the fees.)

The group directs homeowners to the Maryland HOPE hotline, 877-462-7555. Callers there are sent to nonprofit housing counseling agencies. HUD-approved agencies, which can be found nationwide, offer free foreclosure-prevention counseling.

Some scammers have targeted homeowners who have equity, looking to steal it or the property itself. Others want whatever money the borrowers can scrape together, promising loan-modification help that will never be forthcoming.

Anxiety about foreclosure -- and frustration with the Kafkaesque loan-modification process -- makes people easier prey for bad guys. Be careful out there.

Do you have a success story to share? Or a cautionary tale?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Mortgage fraud/scams
        

October 11, 2010

Annapolis condo auction

GrandView.jpg

 

Add condos at the GrandView at Annapolis Towne Centre to the list of high-end units hitting the auction block.

Sturbridge Homes, the builder, plans to auction off as many as 30 units Nov. 14. Open houses for the event began last weekend.

Minimum bids are about 60 to 70 percent off the most recent asking prices, according to auctioneer Sheldon Good & Co. (which supplied the photograph above). It says the minimum bid is $308,000 for a condo last priced at $995,000, the highest of the lot, with the lowest minimum bid at $148,500 for a condo last priced at $415,000.

("Last asking price" isn't necessarily the lowest. One condo set to be auctioned off, advertised with a $915,000 "previous" price, was on the multiple-listing service this summer for $805,000. Shades of the HarborView auction in Baltimore.)

Mark Troen, chief operating officer of Sheldon Good, said the builder and its lenders guarantee that they will sell at least 10 units if they get bids at least as high as the minimum.

"We believe you have to motivate the market," Troen said. "We've given everybody the opportunity to take advantage of compelling pricing."

Two-thirds of the GrandView is empty. About 50 of the 150 units have changed hands so far, the first in May 2009.

Condo fees for the two-bedroom units being auctioned range from about $400 to $600 a month, the auctioneers say. The smallest units going on the block -- one-bed, one-bath -- have $274-a-month condo fees.

Separately from the November auction, the auctioneers will take sealed bids on three of the 10 penthouse units. The current asking prices for those three range from just under $1.2 million to just over $1.7 million, the auctioneers say. (The builder is not on the hook to accept any of those bids if officials there don't like the offers.)

Seen any other interesting auctions?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Auctions
        

October 9, 2010

September: Home sales down 19%

Home sales fell 19 percent in the Baltimore metro area in September, compared with a year earlier -- the third month in a row of declines.

Sept. 30 was the official end of the homebuyer tax credit, the last day to close on a deal. But the real rush happened by June 30, the deadline that Congress extended at the last minute -- which is why sales have dropped since.

Contract-signing is continuing to drop, too -- an early warning signal of what's to come with sales, since it takes a month or two to close on most deals. Buyers signed 25 percent fewer contracts in September than their counterparts a year earlier in the metro area, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.

The price stats require real scrutiny. The average is up about 2 percent in the metro area, and much more strongly in some counties. But are sellers actually getting 2 percent more for their homes than people with similar homes got a year ago?

We're seeing the "changing mix" problem that we've chatted about before. If fewer first-time buyers are closing on starter homes now than they were a year ago, when the $8,000 tax credit was around, then the average sale price will probably rise even if everyone's getting less for their particular homes. (Or, in the city, the average will probably fall farther, because investors buying cheaper rentals become a more important part of the market as traditional-homeowner-type buying decreases.)

Metro-wide, the number of homes sold for less than $250,000 in September dropped 23 percent vs. a year ago. The number of homes changing hands for $500,000 or more? Up. Just a bit, but that sure helps explain why the average rose. (Median, too.)

In other housing-related drama, Bank of America announced Friday that its temporary freeze on foreclosure sales is now nationwide. That's either great news for the housing market or terrible news, depending on whom you ask.

Have you been affected, either as a borrower or a would-be buyer?
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:01 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Housing stats
        

October 8, 2010

Home sales -- and homes for sale -- in August(s)

Metropolitan Regional Information Systems expects to release September home sale figures today, so we should all have some new numbers to chew on soon.

In the meantime, here's how the number of homes for sale -- and homes sold -- in the Baltimore metro area has changed over recent Augusts:

 

balt-area-aug-sales.gif

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Housing stats
        

October 7, 2010

Report: Baltimore-area rents up -- a lot

Average rents in the Baltimore metro area this summer jumped nearly 10 percent from what they were a year ago, according to real estate research firm Delta Associates.

Holy moly.

"Demand for rental housing in the Baltimore area has improved and fundamentals are looking strong as supply comes into line with demand," the firm says in its newest apartment report, out this week.

The average rent during the summer was about $1,470 a month, Delta Associates says. This is the "effective" rent, the average once concessions and rent specials are subtracted out. The value of these deals is dropping, pushing up the total.

Also behind the increase: fewer empty units.

Delta Associates, which surveys the nicer garden and high-rise complexes known as "Class A," says the vacancy rate is down slightly to 3.6 percent in the metro area. That compares with a national rate of 6.6 percent. (What that vacancy rate doesn't include are buildings still in the process of initial lease-up.)

Effective rents rose 7.5 percent year-over-year in Baltimore's southern suburbs, 12.7 percent in the northern suburbs, 3.4 percent in downtown Baltimore and nearly 16 percent in the Fells Point/Inner Harbor area, Delta Associates says.

Back in April, the firm said rents rose modestly -- less than 2 percent -- with drops in some submarkets in the region.

I talked to Grant Montgomery, a vice president with Delta Associates, about the downtown apartment market during the spring and he said that few projects were being built -- which would be good for landlords once more people had the wherewithal to rent.

The firm says in its new report that the supply pipeline metro-wide "remained constrained." It predicts that demand for apartments will slightly outstrip the number of new units planned.

"Baltimore’s supply/demand imbalance indicates that occupancy will improve and rent growth is likely to continue at a modest pace over the next three years," Delta Associates says.

A recent national survey suggested more optimism among landlords, many of whom anticipated raising rents in the next 12 months. I noted these results in a post, and readers had interesting responses.

Wonk reader se_coupe, a renter in Columbia, shared a personal experience: "I saw my rent go up drastically in this most recent renewal. ... I made an inquiry with the leasing office. They claimed 'market conditions were improving' and that all lessees in the community would see an increase in their rent at their next renewal."

Mickey was puzzled by the suggestion that the balance of power was swinging back toward landlords: "There are tons of rental properties - half of the harbor strip is vacant, the new towers around Camden Yard too, the new neighborhood above Little Italy."

And a property manager going by "PropMngr" weighed in: "[M]y community is stable if not slightly better than last year as far as occupancy is concerned. Renewal increase range from $10 to $40 depending on apt type. That being said we have had to become more accommodating with rent payments. Offering programs to residents that were normally on time and due to the economy have become late payers. We have also seen bad debt rise as many who we have tried to work with realize they just can't and skip out."

Thoughts?

Has anyone seen a 10 percent rent increase?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (24)
Categories: Landlording, Renting
        

October 6, 2010

'Great time to buy' a home? Weigh in

Lots of you had something to say about real estate agent Creig Northrop's opinion in this week's Q&A that it's a great time to buy -- and sell. "I'm a barber and now is a good time to get a cut," shot back one reader.

Sounds like a poll. Or, rather, two polls. Weigh in:

As commenter Josh says, the bears and bulls have battled it out for years with prognostications about where prices are headed. ("Thus far the bears are up," he writes.)

On a related note: Personal Real Estate Investor magazine's September/October issue features Baltimore as a city, or possibly region, worth investing in. (For cash flow, not for big price gains -- the magazine quotes a market analysis firm called Local Market Monitor forecasting possible price declines for a year, followed by modest increases.)

Here's my plea to newbie or out-of-town investors eager to pick up a few homes cheap enough to put on a credit card:

Please, please don't buy without doing a lot of homework. A depressingly large number of investors before you have found out the hard way that the hot new neighborhood they bought three homes in wasn't so hot after all, or that a few blocks can make a big difference in what a property will sell or rent for. Investors were a significant share of the people getting foreclosed on early in the bust -- bad for them, bad for the neighborhoods they'd bought in.

For everybody's sake, make sure your budget includes enough not only for the property you're considering, not just for the insurance and property taxes and the like, but also for upkeep. If you're so strapped you're not maintaining your place properly, that's a drag on the neighborhood, too. I hope you'll want to be the sort of investor who aims to do good while doing well.

Folks, what recommendations and/or requests would you make to real estate investors considering Baltimore?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Polls
        

October 5, 2010

Officials call for voluntary halt to Md. foreclosures

Amid the brouhaha over "robo-signing" mortgage firms comes a call for a temporary halt to foreclosures in Maryland.

Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Gov. Martin O'Malley sent a joint letter Monday to seven of Maryland's largest mortgage servicers to conduct a review of their legal process and to stop foreclosing in the meantime. The trio want the firms to ensure that they're following state law, particularly that staffers signing affidavits for foreclosure cases actually reviewed the information they're attesting is correct.

Several servicers have suspended foreclosure proceedings in 23 states -- the ones where foreclosure is treated as a full-blown court case -- as a result of reports about executives who individually signed thousands of documents a month.

Here's the full story, with comments from servicers -- who say the information in question is accurate -- and an attorney who says he's had clients foreclosed on in error.

Here's the letter that the Maryland officials sent to servicers.

And here's Cummings' weekend letter to O'Malley and Gansler, asking for a 60-day foreclosure moratorium. An O'Malley spokesman said Monday that the governor was investigating the possibility of such a ban.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:18 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: The foreclosure mess
        

October 4, 2010

Q&A: Realtor Creig Northrop

Drive through some parts of the region -- Howard County especially -- and you'll see a lot of Creig Northrop. The president of the Creig Northrop Team at Long & Foster is smiling out from bunches of "For Sale" signs.

So many, in fact, that his team is No. 2 in the country for volume on the REAL Trends' Top 400 Sales Professionals list, and No. 6 for the number of deals struck.

Northrop, a real estate agent for more than 20 years, works in Maryland west of the Bay Bridge and in D.C. He chatted with me recently about the housing market, his business and why he thinks this is (really) a great time to buy.

Question: How long has your team appeared on the Top 400 list?

Answer: Ever since it existed. I was the one sort of advocating them to create one, and that was around 2005, 2004. ... At that time, I thought I was No. 1 in the country but there weren't any records so I couldn't prove it. ...

As long as they've done it, I've been No. 2. They should give me an award for perseverance.

Q: No. 1 keeps changing?

A: The guy who's there now has only been there two years. … His average sales price is $17 million. He sells a quarter of the properties we sell. 

Q: What's behind your team's volume?

A: We're always staying ahead of the market and trends, and we're consistently trying new things to sell properties quicker and to get the dollars even though the market is challenged. I call it the new normal. We're ensuring once we're selling the house, we're meeting the appraisers personally, so we're making sure it gets to the settlement table. We're pricing the properties right, and we're getting great buys for the buyers.

Q: Are you marketing differently?

A: In order to be successful in the market nowadays, you have to cater to three types of buyers.

Old school, which is newsprint ... along with the magazines, Washington Life, Baltimore magazine.

Then you have the new school. Every house has its own website; we have our own application for the iPhone. Of course, we have a website that gets 3.5 million hits a month. ...

Then you have the "echo boomers." All about texting. All of our houses have text riders. You can text a number -- all the pictures, information goes right to your phone. ... That echo boom is also social: Facebook, blogging, YouTube, all of that. ... We’re doing all of the above. Ultimately, every house is going to get its own Facebook page. You can rate your favorite house.

Q: How large is your team?

A: Forty full-time agents.

Q: Is it one of the largest teams in the state? How much is team size a factor in the ranking?

A: I've got to believe it's one of the largest. ... One of the things that's very important: We treat this real estate business like a business. it's run like a company vs. just basically waiting for the phone to ring. 

Q: What's the average price of a home your team handles?

A: Around $400,000. We sell every price range.

Q: What's your sense of the housing market these days?

A: I think we're headed in the right direction now. I don't think people are waiting the way they did, and I think if they wait now, they'll be wrong.

Q: So you don't expect prices will continue to fall?

A: I do not, no. Because I think we have some great things coming in. I think everybody should start positioning themselves for prices to go up. Not the way they used to, at all -- a level that is healthy for the economy.

Q: Some predict that foreclosures will press down prices for a while yet. Do you think that concern is misplaced?

A: The biggest issue is jobs. Jobs is a big factor. We need people to have jobs. ... Foreclosures -- the banks have ... put them on [the market] sporadically, so it hasn't really affected us.

Q: What factors do you see that will lift prices in our area?

A: Our inventory keeps dropping. Supply and demand. The less the supply, the more the demand goes up. ... Last year, we averaged 97 percent of list price, and I'd say right now we're probably a little higher than that. It just tells you that it's in the right direction.

Q: What about the higher price ranges? How's that part of the market?

A: There's no question the upper end has had some tough times. … I am selling them; they are taking longer. And the other problem you get into with the upper end is comparables. One thing I recommend is to get an appraisal done. Get an appraisal now to see what you're dealing with. If you don't have any comparables within a five-, 10-mile radius, it's going to be a lot more challenging -- why not deal with that upfront?

Q: What else do you think people should know about the market?

A: It's a great time to buy. And I believe it's a great time to sell. ... I'm certainly not going to say it's a phenomenal market -- I'd say it's in the right direction. The sooner you make the decision to buy or sell, the better off you're going to be.

Q: I think there's reasonable skepticism about "great time to buy" because people heard that while the market was booming and all through the bust. What would you say to those folks?

A: I wouldn't recommend to you what I wouldn't do myself. So obviously I’m looking at buying properties now, because I know by 2011, September 2011, there are a lot of boots that have to be in their desks [for BRAC]. ...

I'm telling you, you should buy up to September 2011, because at that point, I predict the market will change in the favor of appreciation.

Q: Where are you buying?

A: Howard, Odenton, ... any of the areas around there. ... We've got properties we're developing to sell to builders. I'm very much in the real estate mode. I always tell buyers, I wouldn't tell you to do what I wouldn't do, and I'd be buying right now. I am buying right now.

On the seller side, they say, 'Creig, I can't get exactly what I want to sell my house.' Well, guess what? ... You'll make it up on the buy end even if you get a little less for your property than you wanted to get.

---

Someone in the biz you'd like to see a Q&A with? Comment away.

Previous Q&As have included real estate agent Pat Hiban, auctioneer Paul Cooper and Real Estate Intervention agent Mike Aubrey. See the whole list here.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (52)
Categories: Q&A
        

October 3, 2010

How an ugly bathroom can get you a nicer one

If you enjoy pointing out places where your home is less than ideal -- "hey, get a load of this horrible feature" -- then the Sun's advertising staff has a contest for you.

The Ugly Bathroom competition invites homeowners to show off their mold, broken toilets, etc., for the chance to win a redo. One catch: You have to live in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Carroll or Howard. The full rules are here.

Deadline to upload photos: 9 a.m. on Oct. 6. (No one asked me to promote this, by the way. I just figured some of you might be annoyed if I failed to mention an opportunity to get a better bathroom.)

If your bathroom is fine but you enjoy looking at cringe-worthy problems, check out the photo gallery. (I wonder if the "His 'n Hers" outhouse is a joke.)

UPDATE: For the contest-crazy, here's another opportunity -- win a room makeover from the DIY Network's Sweat Equity show, courtesy of ScotchBlue

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 3:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Your name in lights (well, newsprint)
        

October 2, 2010

Foreclosure drama

You'd like to think that everyone in charge of overseeing legal documents crosses their t's and dots their i's, especially the folks who start foreclosure proceedings on people's homes.

But some of them are saying in sworn depositions that the only t-crossing and i-dotting they're doing is in their signatures as they sign like mad.

As The New York Times notes:

In depositions taken by lawyers for homeowners, executives at GMAC and Chase said they or their teams signed 10,000 or more affidavits and related documents a month. That did not give them time to review the cases.

Defense lawyers say the disclosures are symptomatic of the carelessness, if not outright fraud, that lenders have been exhibiting for years in their rush to file cases. Many necessary documents have disappeared, with defense lawyers saying the lenders often do not even have standing to foreclose.

On Friday, Bank of America announced that it will temporarily stop foreclosing in 23 states as it reviews its own processes.

Maryland isn't on that list, and I haven't seen it mentioned in other stories about "robo-signing" lenders. Perhaps that's because the state has a "quasi-judicial" foreclosure system, while the 23 states on the BoA list -- according to the Associated Press -- "use a lengthy court process."

The Times says housing analysts predict a rippling slowdown in evictions as regulators descend and lenders look closely at their own document handling. Economist Karl E. Case -- the Case of the Case-Shiller home price index -- sees an upside for the housing market.

"Maybe this is like shock therapy," he told the Times. "Maybe this will actually get the lenders to the table and encourage them to work out deals that are to the benefit of everybody."

Edward Ericson Jr., who runs the City Paper's Crash Course blog, doubts the delays will help. He describes the situation we find ourselves in this way:

1. Loan servicers are creating bogus “affidavits” to attest to the legal sufficiency of

2. Sloppily-documented loans ginned up by mortgage brokers and fly-by-night lenders who

3. Either flim-flammed or willingly collaborated with borrowers who were either

A. delusional, or

B. larcenous

What's your take?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (22)
Categories: The foreclosure mess
        

October 1, 2010

What $185,000 can buy you in Baltimore

exterior.jpg

 

What sort of home can $185,000 or so buy you in our region? Here's one example.

Amy LaPerle, who purchased this home in Northeast Baltimore over the summer, very kindly offered it up when I suggested that it would be pretty neat to do virtual tours of recently purchased local digs to show how prices (and home types) vary around the area. Call it What You Get for the Money, Baltimore edition.

If you bought a home within the last year in the city or in the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford or Howard, you can play too. More on that in a bit. Back to LaPerle's home:

It's a four-bedroom foursquare in Waltherson, part of the Greater Lauraville area. She paid $184,900, though the effective price was a bit lower because the seller contributed 4 percent toward the closing costs and paid about $4,000 for repairs and inspections.

"After seeing a lot of homes that were okay but not quite right, I liked this one the instant I peeked through the front window," she said in an email interview.

Here's what the back yard looks like -- a reminder that yeah, you can get a tree-filled view in Baltimore:

back.jpg

All photographs taken by Amy LaPerle

 

The home itself needs some work, she says -- the floors could use refinishing, for instance, and she can see that the front porch and back deck will need to be replaced down the road. But the seller took care of the place and didn't leave behind problems in need of a gut rehab.

In fact, LaPerle considers it a plus that the place wasn't Renovated with a capital R.

"I liked that it was spacious, open, and though it had some updates it did not have all of its original character rehabbed out of it," she says. "If I wanted to live in a house that looked like new I would have bought a new house! The big front porch, back yard and mature trees were also appealing."

Here's the foyer:

foyer.jpg

 

The kitchen:

kitchen.jpg

 

The living room:

livingroom.jpg

 

LaPerle, 35 -- who works in sales and customer service and is also one of the co-owners of the cafe Charmington's -- says she still has warm feelings about her place after several months of living there, "though tempered by reality."

"The trees need trimming, the yard needs a lot of love, we'll want to update the kitchen and bathrooms eventually, and there are some definite 'What in the hell were they thinking?' as a result of 100 years of different owners," she explained. "On the other hand, the wood floors and finished attic are my current favorite things."

LaPerle wasn't specifically looking for a foursquare. She was thinking of getting a bungalow.

"I actually looked at a very nice bungalow in the same neighborhood the same day I found my house, but once I walked into the one I bought I knew it was the one," she said. "Friends had told me that would happen, and I didn't believe them. There were a lot of 'almost right' houses, but I'm glad I waited."

Why Waltherson?

"After looking at how much house my money could get me, I decided to look at the Hamilton/Lauraville area," she said. "Quite a few of our friends love living in the area, and that was a draw too. After being in Hampden it feels a bit like the suburbs, but on the other hand I like that it's quieter and greener."

She's happy with her purchase. It was worth the money, in her opinion.

"I feel like I got a nice sized house in decent condition in a stable neighborhood," she said. "I saw a lot of less appealing houses in the same price range in the same neighborhood."

See more of her photos, along with commentary, on her Flickr page.

Like to share your experience and give readers a virtual tour? Email me at jamie.smith.hopkins(at)baltsun.com, with @ replacing the (at), of course. Any location in the metro area at any price -- and in any condition -- is welcome, as long as you bought in the last year or so.

Thanks very much to Amy LaPerle for stepping up!

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (18)
Categories: What your money can get you
        
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About Jamie Smith Hopkins
Jamie Smith Hopkins, a Baltimore Sun reporter since 1999, writes about the regional economy. Her reporting on the housing market has won national and local awards. Hopkins is a Columbia native and has lived in Maryland all her life, save for 10 months spent covering schools in Ames, Iowa.
She trained to become a wonk by spending large chunks of time as a geek and an insufferable know-it-all.
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